NBA Draft 2020 Sleepers #1 - Sam Merrill
Sam Merrill has been moving up mock draft boards, as analysts and front offices pour over tape looking for the next Duncan Robinson, the undrafted shooting sensation who broke out this year hitting 44.6% on 8.3 attempts per game. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie has described Merrill as “the best shooter in the draft”. A senior at Utah State, Merrill shot 42% from 3 for his college career, and 89% from the FT line. Vecenie is the most bullish on Merrill, ranking him 36th with late 1st round potential, whereas most other sites have him in the 50s. ESPN ranks him 57 at the time of writing. Why isn’t Merrill ranked higher in mock drafts? Well, he’s 24 years old and by the time the season starts in December, he will be closer to 25. That takes away a lot of potential and upside. He also looks like this.
A podgy 4th year unathletic white guy? They don't tend to go in the first round. Let's take a look at Merrill's game, and why I hope Houston can buy their way into the 2nd round and snag him.
Merrill has value standing several feet outside the perimeter and spotting up, but he could really thrive in an offense that features more off-ball movement under new coach Stephen Silas. Merrill is happy to run all day. What's particularly impressive is the variety of ways he incorporates movement. He can bring the ball up and initiate plays, or start off-ball. He will keep moving even on the 3rd or 4th read of the sequence. This isn't a guy who just gets to his spots, he's smart enough to give and go, read the defense, and keep moving. The defender tasked with face guarding Merrill most of this game was a rookie by the name of Luguentz Dort. He couldn't stay near him and Merrill dropped 27 points.
Once Merrill catches, it's go time. His super quick release gives defenders no time to close out, and he is excellent at shooting on the turn, keeping his body perfectly in balance and still maintaining a small dip on the catch before getting up the shot.
For the most part, Merrill uses a screen to get himself open. And just the slightest bit of room is all he needs to let it fly.
That's not to say he can't score on his own. In ISO situations, Merrill is a threat to pull up from ANYWHERE.
At 24 years of age with 4 years of college experience, Houston would be getting an intelligent player ready to contribute. Utah used Merrill as a primary and secondary ballhandler in their offense, bringing the ball up and running handoffs and pick n rolls on the perimeter. That being said, Merrill probably won't be able to fully translate his point game to the NBA. He struggles to get separation on even college defenders, with neither a quick first step nor particularly threatening handles. Earlier in his career he had a habit of running into traffic as he slowly turned the corner on his man, although this has improved. By adding to his bag, Merrill can now manoeuvre around defenders with side-steps and stepbacks. His in-n-out dribble and crossover doesn't look super convincing, but he has been able to use his craftiness to get his own shot off - or penetrate and find his teammates.
His ability to get into his shooting motion from almost any position helps, he might not blow by the big on a pick n roll, but he can stop and pop and he gets a ton of help from his soft touch.
The focus on draft night will be all about Merrill's shooting, but his passing sets him apart too. He can see ahead of the game with cross-court passes into a space a player hasn't even occupied yet. And when he does run into trouble, he finds his way out by hitting an open man others might not see. Merrill's passing is an underrated part of his game and hints at combo-guard potential, however I don't think we will see it on full display in the NBA. He's not going to be kicking out after beating his defender on a pick n roll, because I just don't see him getting that sort of penetration consistently. His first option will always be setting up his own shot. But having good passers on your team always comes in handy, and whoever is running their offense next season, Houston needs better passers and decision makers to add diversity to their attack.
The better case projection for Merrill shows a player who could have offered more value for Houston in last year's playoffs than someone like Austin Rivers, who offered no secondary playmaking ability whatsoever as Houston struggled time and time again to counter double-teams. Merrill built a really solid connection with 7-foot center Neemas Queta, an agile big who sets solid screens, rolls to the rim and has a decent hookshot. Merrill attracted so much attention from the defense, Queta gliding through the lane was often an afterthought. Merrill averaged 3.9 assists per game last year, and a lot of them looked like this.
Where he can improve however, is connecting on lob passes such as these. Merrill is more comfortable threading the needle with passing below the rim.
This is where you might expect things to take a drastic turn, but Merrill isn’t a bad defender at college level. His defensive skills match his offensive skills - he’s generally pretty aware off-ball, keeping an eye on the play and on his man, chasing shooters and navigating through screens and handoffs. In the clips below, Lu Dort tries to give him a taste of his own medicine, but Merrill is able to stick with him, always keeping his head on a swivel waiting for the first move, and picking his angles and lanes smartly to get shortcuts around screeners.
Unlike another elite shooter in the draft, Markus Howard, Merrill isn't someone who opposing teams have been hunting out defensively. Merrill spends most of his time zoning up on the weakside. He might not have the wingspan to play the passing lanes, but he is pretty quick on closeouts and he's not going to fall asleep and let you cut on him. He's capable rotating into help position.
His slow footspeed and lateral quickness will be a big weakness he has to overcome on-ball. Ultimately, how we will fare in an NBA defense depends on how much he needs hiding. Whether he can hold his own when the other team goes hunting for him. When he's on an island against the wealth of guard talent the NBA has, it's hard not to imagine seeing this over and over again.
All is not lost 1v1. Merrill's biggest strength is in... well, his strength. His stocky 6'5 frame should allow him to guard up positions, switch into the paint, and at least put up resistance if a driver is trying to dig his shoulder in and bully him en-route to the basket.
Merrill ended his time at Utah State in a blaze of glory. In the Mountain West Tournament he scored 29 points in the quarter-finals, 27 in the semi-finals and then added another 27 in the final. He also did this, with 2.5 seconds left against the 30-1 San Diego State. With a place in the NCAA tournament at stake, after playing every second of the night so far, on his third games in three days, Merrill produced this moment of magic.
Sam Merrill comes into the NBA draft with clutch pedigree, a fearlessness to take the big shot. This is a guy who could come off the bench and hit a huge 3 in the dying minutes of a playoff game, a la Troy Daniels. He's an elite shooter with enough other tools you can bet on to hopefully carry over to the NBA. With his age and basketball IQ, it's a perfect fit for a contending team (please God let Houston still be a contending team by the time you are reading this). A smart team is gonna throw an offer Merrill's way. If they can buy their way into the second round, it could be Houston.